Serving as a prequel of sorts to the long-running XCOM series, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified attempts to fuse the strategic elements of turn-based tactical alien zap-em-up XCOM: Enemy Unknown with a third-person shooter. Unfortunately, while there are glimmers of entertainment, the concept doesn't quite coalesce into a cohesive whole.
It’s 1962 and Agent Carter has been tasked with delivering a briefcase containing something of extreme military value to his commanding officer. Rather predictably, there are some complications in doing so that result in exchanged gunfire and Carter passing out. Upon coming around, a full-blown alien invasion is underway, and he’s instructed to proceed to a secret base where the USA’s greatest defensive assets are located.
The secret base is home to XCOM, a collection of the best scientists, agents, and soldiers that the US military could find. When at the base, you’re free to wander around and chat to various key characters about what’s happening outside. Sometimes they’ll even have little issues that you can assist them with inside the stronghold to keep you occupied, but it takes so long to travel from one side of the fortress to the other – with poorly concealed loading screens in-between – that we often gave up and forgot about most of these requests.
The ready room is where you can recruit and customise your team. Here you can choose their class from a selection of styles comprising commando, support, recon, and engineer. These classes augment various powers for use in battle that are unique to each type, and it’s important to choose one that best complements the rest of your team. The remainder of the customisation is far more limited than the options available in Enemy Unknown. You can select a head, name, and customise the colours of their outfits, but that’s all, which is a shame because your emotional connection to squaddies is likely to decrease as a result.
When you’re ready to head out on a mission, there are major and minor ones to be undertaken. Minor missions are largely unimportant, and you can quite happily ignore them, while major missions act as part of the primary narrative. As you can’t have more than two other people in your squad, you can ensure that the rest of your agents don’t get lazy by sending them out on special assignments. They usually return after one or two missions and can’t be used while they’re away, but will come back levelled up and may even have recovered another agent for you to use.
Upon entering a firefight for the first time, the game feels strangely familiar. As it’s a third-person cover-based shooter, moving between handily placed obstacles is a necessity if you wish to gain the upper hand over your foes, but it all feels a little clunky, and we were often forced to stick to the wrong side of a piece of cover, exposing ourselves in attack. Thankfully, as in previous titles, you won’t be operating alone, and tapping left on the d-pad sends your two squaddies to wherever you’re aiming, with right bringing them back. We rarely found ourselves using these buttons, though, as hitting circle brings up a power wheel, whereby you can give your squadmates more accurate instructions ranging from where to move and who to attack, to which power to use and upon whom.
These powers are unlocked as you and your squaddies progress through the ranks and range from putting up shields, placing turrets, and sending out drones to firing a dead-eye sniper shot, placing mines, and making an enemy fight for you. These abilities really are invaluable, and executing them via the power wheel is the only way to succeed, as your team is almost entirely ineffective without making use of them. When entering a new battlefield, it’s pretty satisfying when you bring up the weapon wheel and take charge of your entire team in one swoop.
Furthermore, the shooting feels solid, and there’s enough weapon variety to keep shootaholics happy. Weapons vary from 60s assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols, right through to futuristic laser and plasma alternatives. Once you upgrade to the space age weapons, you’ll likely never pick up a traditional projectile-based firearm again, but at least the option's there.
Hidden throughout levels are backpacks for you and your team. These backpacks provide various buffs to your agents, like increased headshot damage and bigger clips. There are also resupply crates located in areas around each level that allow you to swap out agents, further customise your team, and change your weapons around.
The aliens themselves are well designed, with strange eyes and weird, sideways mouths that you can’t take your eyes off. At first there seems to be a decent variety of them ranging from small movie-poster aliens to huge, hulking, armoured beasts. However, while there are a number of different types, stylistically they begin to look the same after the first few levels, and it wasn’t long before we were categorising them internally as big, medium, and small.
Sadly, The Bureau isn’t the most polished of games. It chugs badly, with sound glitches and jarring frame rate issues cropping up far too frequently for a product developed this late in the PlayStation 3’s life cycle. These issues are baffling, as the environments are often sparsely detailed and levels tend to look the same from start to finish. Cutscenes and dialogue animations are very poor, somehow causing the humans to appear more alien than their otherworldly counterparts. It's all very cheap and rough around the edges.
The plot is similarly poor, stringing you along for much of the campaign with very little information. It rectifies this towards the end of the adventure by dumping a concentrated stream of baffling information on you, but by this time you probably won't care. Key characters come and go over the course of the adventure, but you won’t remember any of them fondly. There are even attempts to make you care for personalities that are completely unlikeable – the protagonist included – and the whole narrative comes to a suitably unsatisfying and perplexing end.
The game's biggest issue, though, is its complete lack of identity. Clearly the culmination of a troubled development, this lacks the focus of Enemy Unknown, and feels like a bit of a concoction of different gameplay styles that are done better elsewhere. The result is a Frankenstein monster of mechanics, which may alienate the series' existing fanbase and confound newcomers in the process. There are features ripped straight out of Mass Effect, Resistance, and many more on display here – but none of these elements are executed as well as in their parent properties.
At times the narrative is incomprehensible and the characters are uninteresting and unlikeable, but it's the mismatch of borrowed gameplay mechanics that really lets The Bureau: XCOM Declassified down. Truly embodying the spirit of the phrase 'jack of all trades, master of none', this is another unfortunate victim of rampant focus testing.